A new study from Nashville-based LifeWay Research found a significant generation gap in how Americans view morality. Most older Americans say right and wrong never change. Younger Americans—not so much. More than 6 in 10 of those older than 45 say right and wrong do not change. For those 35 and younger, fewer than 4 in 10 make that claim.
That’s a huge shift between generations, said Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research. Older Americans grew up at a time when ideas about morality were more stable, he says. That’s no longer true for younger Americans. “We are shifting very fast from a world where right and wrong didn’t change to a world where right and wrong are relative,” McConnell said. “We are not all on the same page when it comes to morality. And we haven’t reckoned with what that means.”
LifeWay’s representative survey of 1,000 Americans found most worry moral behavior is on the decline. Researchers found 81 percent of Americans agree with the statement, “I am concerned about declining moral behavior in our nation.” Nineteen percent disagree.
Worry about morals differs across demographic lines, but remains consistently high. Most Americans older than 65 (85 percent) are concerned about declining moral behavior, as are those 18 to 24 (71 percent.)
Those with graduate degrees (72 percent) agree, as do those with a high school degree or less (85 percent). So do Christians (85 percent), those of non-Christian faiths (70 percent) and “nones”—those with no religious affiliation (72 percent). White Americans (82 percent), African-Americans (86 percent), Hispanic Americans (73 percent) and Americans of other ethnicities (75 percent) agree as well. Yet Americans disagree over whether morality can be legislated.
Almost two-thirds (63 percent) agree with the statement, “Implementing laws to encourage people to act morally is not effective.” Thirty-seven percent disagree. On the other hand, fewer than half (44 percent) agree with the statement, “The fewer laws regulating moral standards, the better.” Fifty-six percent disagree.
Men (49 percent) are more likely to agree than women (39 percent). Nones (55 percent) are more likely to agree than Christians (39 percent.) Those who attend religious services less than once a month (48 percent) are more likely to agree than those who attend at least once a month (36 percent). Overall, Americans seem guided more by their internal moral compass than by laws.
LifeWay Research looked at the factors that shape the shared moral views Americans think society should hold. When asked which factors are most influential in shaping their moral views, Americans name their parents (39 percent), followed by their religious beliefs (26 percent) and their feelings (18 percent). Friends (4 percent), teachers (2 percent) and media (3 percent) are less influential.
Dr. Alex McFarland says he was alarmed by the findings of a LifeWay Research survey in which Americans overwhelmingly agreed the country is in moral decline but couldn’t agree on the definition of morality. Eighty-one percent answered “yes” to whether they are concerned about “declining moral behavior” in the U.S., the survey. But the survey also showed young Americans disagree with their parents and grandparents that right and wrong are fixed and unchanging.
That means a future America won’t be tied to any solid beliefs in right and wrong, he said. “We are watching the culture become more and more unraveled, and no one really seems to know what we need to do about it or have the fortitude to speak definitively about it.” McFarland says young people, one day, could decide that America can exist as a moral country without the foundational belief that our freedoms come from a Creator. If those Millennials ever gain control of government in the future, says McFarland, they will “overthrow” the U.S. Constitution.
“This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come. For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, without natural affection, trucebreakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good, traitors, heady, highminded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God; having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away.” 2 Timothy 3:1-5.